Remember when Amazon.com was just a bookstore? Takes you back, doesn't it? Now the online retail behemoth has a reason to make every brick and mortar store sweat. More and more people toss their books, movies, video games, even toilet paper and cat food into Amazon's digital shopping cart.
If you're a frequent online shopper, or a big streaming media consumer, you've probably considered buying into Amazon Prime. For $79, it gets you one calendar year of unlimited two-day shipping, ebooks to borrow on your Kindle and access to a library of streaming movies and TV.
Prime offers the chance for savings and hours of entertainment, but it comes with plenty of catches. Don't think that eighty bucks will send the latest in newly released films and TV to your home, nor will that free shipping apply to third-party sellers hawking wares on Amazon's marketplace.
Amazon Prime is a good deal for the right type of customer. Occasional online shoppers are better off working that free Super Saver shipping and dabbling in Netflix. However, for the right blend of impulse buyer, Kindle reader, film fan and last minute birthday gift shopper, Mr. Bezos and company have an offer that's difficult to refuse.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
Start thinking of something else to display next to your TV, because buying movies on plastic will one day be passe. Streaming media is the future and Amazon knows it, but so do Netflix, Hulu and iTunes.
Buying into Amazon Prime gets you access to a library of streaming titles that you can watch instantly at no extra charge. It's a somewhat random mix of television and movies, both new and old.
It's hard to keep a bead on the overlap between Amazon Prime's Instant Video and that of Netflix's Watch Instantly, since the rights to streaming content eventually expire and make for fluctuating libraries.
There is always overlap though. For example, currently Dredd, The Switch, The Hunger Games, Zoolander, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers and Thor, all titles promoted by Amazon as popular Prime selections, are also available on Netflix Instant. However, The Goonies, Dumb & Dumber, Amelie, 12 Angry Men, The Exorcist and Casablanca are all on Instant Video, but are disc-only on Netflix.
But, Netflix has plenty of great movies on Instant that Prime members aren't entitled to. Currently there's There Will Be Blood, The Emperor's New Groove, Rosemary's Baby and Drive, to give a few examples.
For television, Prime's offerings are strong. As of this writing it's promoting seasons of Duck Dynasty, Justified, The Good Wife and Downton Abbey, all of which are mail-only from Netflix. Additionally, Amazon brokered a deal for episodes of Under the Dome to stream just four days after they premiere on television. If Amazon can keep up negotiations like that, it could be a real game changer.
Still, Netflix has shows on Instant that Amazon customers would need to pay extra for. It has Portlandia, The League, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mad Men, Bones, The Walking Dead and the first four and a half seasons of Breaking Bad, all of which are pay to play on Amazon, Prime or not.
There's a lot of overlap here as well. Netflix and Amazon both have Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, The X-Files and Fringe.
However, only Netflix has the fourth season of Arrested Development. Original content is currently it's crown jewel over Amazon. Lots of other online media services, Amazon included, are still in the nascent stages of developing programming. With Orange is the New Black, that fourth season of Arrested Development plus the Emmy-winning House of Cards, Netflix has a considerable lead on the competition.
Ok, all of that is nice, but what about when a movie you want to watch isn't available for streaming? On Netflix, your backup plan is to order the disc and wait two days, assuming you're not on a streaming only plan. With Amazon, you can pay extra to have the movie streamed then and there, which is awfully convenient, but can get expensive.
While a 24-hour movie rental is generally around three dollars, not every movie has that option. Some need to be purchased, forcing you to pony up ten bucks or more to add it to your library. Not a great option if it's a film you may only watch once.
When it comes to streaming to your TV or mobile device, Netflix has Amazon beat, but only just barely. Both services have apps for watching on just about everything short of your microwave; Xbox 360, Roku LT, iOS devices, whatever, but Amazon conspicuously lacks a streaming app for Android.
It's unclear why Amazon would offer its services to the iPad and iPhone but not the Galaxy S4 or Nexus 7. Perhaps it's favoring it's own Android-based product, the Kindle Fire HD, which of course has streaming support.
Other than that the two services are very comparable in this regard. Both have slick and easy to navigate interfaces across all supported platforms, making it easy to select media and control playback.
Amazon Prime's free Kindle ebook lending library
Did you know Amazon Prime subscribers with Kindles can borrow one ebook a month, no extra charge? It's not as compelling a feature as free streaming movies and two-day shipping, but if you meet the caveats, it's a bit of a treat.
Prime subscribers with Kindles are entitled to one ebook a month. The ebooks can be kept as long as you like, with no due dates, but you can only have one at a time, and you'll have to wait until the first of the month to get your next loaner.
These ebooks are for use on Kindle devices only. That doesn't mean the Kindle app on your iPad mini or HTC One. It has to be on an actual Kindle device, like a Kindle Paperwhite or the Kindle Fire HD.
That's disappointing, but the selection of ebooks isn't really worth buying a Kindle for anyway. It's a pretty random selection of classic literature and modern paperbacks, with two notable heavy-hitting series, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
As an experiment, we downloaded Harry Potter and Sorcerer's Stone to a Kindle, then tried to access it on an iPad synced to the same account. No luck, this deal is indeed for Amazon's hardware only.
Basically, if you're a Kindle owner and a Prime subscriber, you shouldn't forget about it, but it's not much of a motivator to take the $79 plunge, or to pick up a Kindle if you go Prime.
Amazon Prime's 'Free' Two-Day Shipping
We had to put it in quotes because hey, it's not free, you're paying $80 bucks a year for it, right? That's not to say it isn't a very good deal though.
Streaming video and loaner ebooks aside, this is the real meat of Amazon Prime. Two-day shipping generally costs between $10 to $20, so once you've made around eight purchases, you've gotten your money's worth from Prime, so to speak.
However, don't forget that Amazon offers free Super Saver shipping on orders of $25 or more. It takes 5-8 business days, so it's pretty much the slow boat, but hey, it's free. There are exceptions, but for the most part that offer is ubiquitous across anything sold directly from Amazon.
Remember that not every item advertised on Amazon will actually be fulfilled by the retail giant itself. Some items are sold by individual sellers or third-party companies on Amazon. These purchases will not qualify for Prime's "free" two-day shipping, and Super Saver may not be an offer either.
Basically, it comes down to this: what do you typically buy from Amazon, and how impatient are you? If you're buying books, DVDs, name brand toiletries and other mass produced goods, Prime will cover you (and Super Saver will be an option as well).
If you're a gamer and tend to pre-order new titles, Amazon will guarantee release date delivery on pre-orders. Our copy of GTA V showed up right on schedule. Some people even got theirs early.
However, if you're buying lots of obscure brands of clothing, electronics or cosmetics, which likely aren't stocked by Amazon and will be fulfilled by a third-party, then forget about that free two-shipping. Also, if you don't mind waiting a week for your stuff, you can always fill your cart till hits the $25 mark, then bask in free shipping glory.
Unlimited two-day shipping. That's what Amazon Prime is all about. It's fast enough that it can save you a trip to the store, should you notice you're getting low on toothpaste, and if you're already spending $80 or more shipping a year, there's no reason not to sign up.
Streaming video and borrowing ebooks is really just the gravy on top. Still, Amazon's video selection is really improving, and nips at the heels of Netflix for sheer size. It's also a bit cheaper, since a year of Prime is $80, and year of streaming-only service from Netflix is about $96, at $7.99 a month.
Also, you can't get socks from Netflix, nor can you pony up a few extra dollars to rent or buy an otherwise unavailable film. You'd have to wait on a red envelope for that.
When it comes to the quality and selection of streaming video content, Amazon is still number two to Netflix. Netflix has better original programming, and more of it, and seems dead set on acquiring even more.
Amazon's lack of an Android streaming app is really frustrating, especially since it seems to be playing favorites for its own device, the Kindle Fire. That's surprising, since Amazon is generally very platform neutral, to the point where we personally buy all our ebooks from it, since they can be read through the Kindle app on both iOS and Android devices. Amazon is usually the best option for users split between two platforms, so it's disappointing to have the ball dropped here.
Kindle favoritism (or perhaps difficulties negotiating with publishers, to be fair) also dampens Amazon Prime's ebook lending library. Part of the brilliance of ebooks is having a title, and your reading progress, synced across all your devices. You lose that luxury on Amazon's loaner ebooks.
As a bundle deal Amazon Prime is a jack of all trades, master of one thing: shipping. Amazon Prime has two-day delivery on lockdown, and offers it on a ton of items.
So what's the call? Should you throw down your $79 and commit to Prime? Ultimately, it comes down to your own lifestyle and entertainment preferences, and if you'll get your money's worth from the two-day shipping.
Before taking the plunge, or dismissing the service, visit Amazon and look up some of your most common purchases. Are they covered by Prime? You'll know by the Prime check mark symbol by the price. If you're already a frequent customer, look in your order history and add up your past shipping costs. Did you spend close to $80 on shipping over the last year? If so, consider going Prime.
Then visit Amazon's Prime Instant Video page and look for your favorite films and TV shows. Will they be included in your Prime subscription, or will you be ponying up extra to see them?
Finally, Amazon offers a free 30 day trial of Prime. If you're on the fence, but leaning towards yes, this is a great way to try it out. However, you'll automatically be charged at the end of the trial, so make sure to set a calendar reminder a few days before it ends so you can mull it over and cancel if you don't want to commit. Happy shopping!